Meet the Wagakki, the Japanese Rockers Headlining at SXSW

Wagakki Band brilliantly marry traditional Japanese instrumentation with modern Western rock and pop.

Wagakki Band, who will be playing at SXSW late Friday, are—cliché alert—huge in Japan, with a recent No. 1 album, but they are little-known in the U.S.

Nonetheless, they are headlining tonight, Friday at 11:59 p.m. on the Live Nation Stage at the Des Moines Embassy, a venue at 6th and Red River, which is Iowa’s official space at SXSW.

The band’s gig last Monday at Irving Plaza in New York suggested why they are headlining in Austin, and what may lie in their U.S. future.

What you see on stage are performers from this eight-person band using musical instruments that will be unfamiliar to just about anybody except a scholar—the word Wagakki quite literally means “ancient instruments”—along with historic references, including twirling of parasols, manipulation of fans, a kabuki mask, and a lead singer with wooden rods impaling her hair.

There are multiple stage moves featuring an athleticism that out-Jaggers Mick Jagger in his prime.

What you hear is a wholly convincing blend of heartstring-tugging Japanese singing styles with raw powerhouse rock ’n’ roll, including an extended double drum solo—an unusual feature, which one of their New York-based producers, Mark Frieser, told me he had last heard on Genesis’s Mama Tour in 1983.

The band was formed by the lead singer, Yuko Suzuhana. She had been dancing mai, a traditional dance, since the age of 5, which was also when she began playing shigin, the traditional vibrato chanting of a poem, along with such instruments as the koto, a colossal flat harp, and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute.

She was trained in depth in these practices but she also was passionate about Pop. Accordingly, in 2013 she got musician friends to form a band, a three-piece band at first, but soon it swelled to its present size.

“I’ve had a dream to spread the greatness of Japanese traditional things like shigin and wagakki to wider people since I was a child,” Suzuhana says.

Hence also the rods in the hair—they are called kanzashi—and hence especially her decision not to sing in English, as do most ambitious Euro popsters, but in Japanese.

“One of the reasons is I use the shigin vibrato,” she says. “And Japanese wordings fit perfectly to that singing style. I strongly hope that even if you don’t understand, you will feel something from it when you see our shows.”

The rock ’n’ roll is for real too, that being another tradition, a Western one.

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“So for me to rock with wagakki was nothing special,” she says. “Japan combines the traditional and the modern, the West and the East,” says Kurona, one of the drummers. “There are no ninja or geisha walking the streets now. We wear regular Western clothing, we eat Western foods and listen to the same songs. Wagakki Band really expresses current Japan. But some of our culture has not been understood yet. I hope by seeing Wagakki Band people will get interested.”

So, are there still significant distinctions between the musical cultures of East and West, as of now? Well, yes. After the gig at Irving Plaza, a handful of us were taken backstage to meet the band who very agreeably disposed themselves around us for selfies.

This is a No. 1 band, folks. I was trying to imagine the Beatles or Stones doing that in 1964. Or, good grief, Bob Dylan doing it ever.

Somebody asked what I thought about our reception. I said I thought they were amazingly polite.

“Aren’t the Brits polite too?” I was asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But the difference is these guys mean it.”